Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition took the world by surprise when it won in the country’s General Election last May, propelling Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad to power as Prime Minister once again.
Since then, however, the PH coalition has been shaken by the return to popularity of many opposition members. Moreover, many citizens seem impatient for more reforms to occur. This situation has left experts wondering whether the growing unrest is merely part of the country’s natural course of development, or is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper problem.
One threat to Dr Mahathir’s government of late is the alliance between UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, with long-term rival Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), for the purpose of drawing the country’s largest number of voters, the Malay-Muslim population.
UMNO was a major part of the then governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which was in power for over six decades.
The recent alliance between UMNO and PAS has so far been a fortunate one for Malaysia’s opposition. In a recent by-election at Selangor, which South China Morning Post (SCMP) calls a “stronghold state” PH lost a seat to the alliance.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak has also undergone an image change of sorts, despite facing multiple charges of graft and corruption. Mr Najib launched a campaign to clean up his image, one that purports that he has nothing to be ashamed of.
He is now presenting himself as a man of the masses, as opposed to his highbrow persona from years ago.
But the UMNO-PAS alliance is not the only team-up threatening the PH coalition. There is now an agreement between the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) to cooperate to win the minority vote of the Indians and Chinese. Both the MCA and the MIC are members of the BN coalition and suffered defeat during last year’s polls.
One factor believed to be responsible for PH’s waning popularity is the coalition’s inability to make good on the promises it made during the election, particularly to uplift Malaysia’s economy. Some voters may be weary of waiting for change to come about, the largeness of the task notwithstanding.
One significant promise that PH made was to tackle the country’s corruption issues, specifically the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
According to Dr Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute, “Partly constrained by finance, the government has not done a lot in easing the people’s economic burdens. Although commendable, reforms to strengthen or empower the judiciary, the Attorney General’s chambers, the Election Commission and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission do not immediately improve people’s economic well-being,” SCMP reports.
Improvements to the economy can come at a glacial pace, something that the opposition may just be taking advantage of.
One worthy comparison may be made with Indonesia situation. While President Suharto was toppled in 1998, it was not until 2004, under the leadership of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, that stability was restored and the country started to make progress again.
SCMP reports political economist Dr Terence Gomez as saying, “Indonesia was chaotic and there was instability. People even went as far as to say perhaps they shouldn’t have got rid of (Suharto).”
In the meantime, Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s Finance Minister, intensified matters by issuing a statement in Chinese that called the Umno-PAS alliance was equal to “declaring war” on non-Malays.
He retracted his statement almost immediately, replacing it with phrasing that the alliance would “target” non-Malays, and his staff scrambled to change the wording in already-published articles.
But the opposition took advantage of the resulting chaos the wording had wrought. A police report had been filed, with demands for the Finance Minister to be taken to task for stirring up racial hatred and anger especially since there are strict sedition laws in Malaysia that forbid this.
According to MCA secretary-general Chew Mei Fun, “He unwittingly created further racial tensions, liable to upset our already fragile national unity.”
Deputy defence minister Liew Chin Tong talked about how the opposition took advantage of the Finance Minister’s debacle. “Their aim is to make Malaysia ‘ungovernable’ for Pakatan Harapan because the popularly elected government will have to deal with angry ethnic fires fanned from both the Malay front and the non-Malay side. The demands from both sides will be contradictory, hostile and explosive.
The objective of such a ‘flank attack’ is to make both Malays and non-Malays feel aggravated and deprived. Everything will be framed in racial binary terms … In this setting, there is no way that Pakatan Harapan can ‘out-Malay’ Umno, ‘out-Islam’ PAS, ‘out-Chinese’ MCA and ‘out-Indian’ MIC.”
PH believes that its enemies will try to deepen the racial lines in Malaysia just to win more votes.
The country is around 70 percent Bumiputra, meaning ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples. The remainder are ethnic Chinese and Indian.
Shahril Hamdan, Umno Youth vice-chief, has this to say about PH leaders’ statements on the UMNO-PAS alliance. “It bodes well that now both coalitions will be multiracial in composition, although it remains to be seen if both can live up to that in substance. Pakatan Harapan appear to be more multiracial, but as their recent statements and actions have indicated, they are unable to manage diversity very well, leading to discontent among separate communities who all appear to be dissatisfied.”
Dr Mahathir has pooh-poohed how important the UMNO-PAS team-up is, calling Umno “not the biggest threat”. Indeed, the party now only occupies 37 seats in Parliament, while in 2013 it had won 133. Many UMNO Members of Parliament have defected to the Prime Minister’s party.
Speaking about the UMNO-PAS alliance in a recent media interview, he said, “Some people will find that this is a good alliance and they might want to return to Umno … [but] Umno has lost its credibility, principally because of the period when Najib ruled the country.”
While Najib is enjoying a surge in popularity, he still has corruption cases looming over his head. According to Dr Wong of the Penang Institute, being reminded of the extent of the former Prime Minister’s excessive ways could be a wake-up call to people again. “Ultimately, cynicism will disappear only when most people can feel the gain in regime change.”